TOMBSTONE — The achievements of 106 Tombstone High School graduates were celebrated Thursday in one of the state’s few commencement ceremonies where students walked together as a class.
Wearing Yellow Jacket black and gold, the Class of 2020 walked onto the high school football field to “Pomp and Circumstance” and a cheering crowd of family, friends and educators.
The commencement program followed a traditional format, it was interwoven with a few “unconventional tweaks” in order to comply with current COVID-19 guidelines set by state officials.
Despite face masks, social distancing and the absence of congratulatory hugs and high-fives, reaction to the ceremony was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think it’s wonderful that the school district made the effort to hold a traditional graduation for the students,” said Kitty Young, whose daughter, Cameron, was one of the graduates.
“Because of the coronavirus, these students already lost so many experiences, so being able to celebrate a traditional ceremony is the best possible way for them to end their time in high school.”
Similar comments were echoed by the graduates.
“I’m super happy that our school found a way for us to have a traditional graduation,” Nathan Chamberlain said prior to the ceremony. “I’m excited that we’re going to be able to walk onto the football field together and across the stage as we celebrate our special night.
Chamberlain will be studying conservation law at Bemidji State University in Minnesota.
“I appreciate all the hard work everyone put into making this a special experience for us,” said Moxie Dobson, who plans to attend Cochise College. “It’s nice to see all my classmates again before we go off in different directions.”
Across the country, graduating classes of 2020 lost proms, spring sporting events, senior trips, project graduations and in some cases, commencement programs altogether as schools struggled to find ways to celebrate their seniors while dealing with tough COVID guidelines.
Most Cochise County schools organized drive-thru and virtual ceremonies for their graduates, but TUSD governing board members voted to delay the district’s graduation and promotion ceremonies, hoping some of the COVID restrictions would loosen up enough to hold a traditional graduation.
“As far as I know, we’re one of the only high schools in the state holding a traditional ceremony,” said TUSD board member Jimmy Dotson. “We weren’t sure what to expect, but so far we’re hearing nothing but positive feedback from everyone.”
With 106 graduates, Tombstone’s Class of 2020 represents the largest graduating class in the school’s 98-year history, said THS Principal David Thursby.
The program included keynote speaker Chuck Balke, a 1991 Tombstone High School graduate who now serves as a fire chief in Colorado.
Balke spoke of some of the challenges he faced growing up in Whetstone as the “proud son of a single mother of a broken home,” emphasizing that it’s “the little things in life” that build foundations. He encouraged the graduates to “be better today than you were yesterday,” to recognize failures as learning opportunities and embrace challenges.
Along with celebrating the graduates, the program included two somber tributes and a moment of silence for JROTC Cadet Jackson Roser who died in 2017, and THS Counselor David Chambers, who died unexpectedly the week before graduation.
Roser would have been graduating with the 2020 class.
“We’re honoring him tonight with an empty chair decorated with a JROTC rifle and a special tribute,” Thursby said.
JROTC Chief Thomas Gross presented a eulogy in Roser’s honor, which was followed by the playing of “Taps.”
“Tonight we also remember our school counselor Mr. Chambers, who passed away last week,” Thursby said, adding that “Mr. Chambers was loved by all students and staff.”
TUSD Superintendent Robert Devere introduced class Valedictorian Kathryn Hazel and Salutatorian Brinley Carrillo.
Along with her accomplishment as the THS top 2020 graduate, Hazel served a number of leadership roles throughout her four years of high school, including National Honor Society president and JROTC battalion commander, Devere said. She will be attending the University of Arizona on a ROTC scholarship and plans to serve in the U.S. Army after graduating from college.
Hazel opened her speech by thanking a number of teachers for their support and encouragement, especially math teacher Daniel Matchette and JROTC instructors Chief Thomas Gross and MSG Dan Kilpatrick.
“None of us expected our senior year to be like ths,” she said. “We lost opportunities. Our senior trip, prom, spring fling. All of these things seem slightly frivolous in the wake of everything that is going on, but it doesn’t make it any less important to us.”
Hazel encouraged her classmates to hold onto their high school memories and learn to take advantage of day-to-day experiences.
“This is not the senior year we wanted, but it’s the one we received,” she said. “And we have overcome it. We have made it here. Now it is time for the Class of 2020 to go and take on the rest of the world.”
Salutatorian Carrillo served as student body president her senior year, along with a number of leadership roles throughout high school. She will be attending Northern Arizona University this fall. Like Hazel, she thanked several teachers for their support and guidance through school, crediting them for her academic success.
In her opening remarks, she spoke of the pandemic and its widespread impact on graduations across the country.
“Not only will we go down in history books for persevering through the COVID pandemic, but we will always be thankful for this opportunity to come together with family and friends to celebrate our high school accomplishments,” Carrillo said. “It’s safe to say that the graduating classes of 2020 have had rather unconventional ceremonies, but our school board and administration have made every effort to keep the THS graduation as traditional as possible. As a class, we are grateful for that.”
Carrillo ended her speech with a heartfelt thank you to Chambers and his support as a counselor.
“Thank you for helping me through my senior year and giving me so many opportunities that I would not have without you,” she said. “I know I speak for everyone at Tombstone High School when I say you will be deeply missed.”
A tremendous amount of effort went into holding a traditional program while adhering to a list of non-traditional guidelines. Despite the challenges, families applauded the school district’s effort.
Jonathan Wilson drove to Tombstone from California to see his daughter Heather Wilson graduate.
“I drove 730 miles for this graduation, and I thought it was great,” he said. “In California, everything is completely shut down. There are no graduation ceremonies going on in California, so this is wonderful,” he said.
Similar comments resonated throughout the crowd.
“We are so proud of Tombstone High School for providing families with this opportunity to celebrate our high school graduates,” said Kelly Mangan. “My daughter (Heather Wilson) was so sad when her prom and other activities were canceled. I know the measures the school district has taken to hold this were difficult, but I commend them for stepping up to the plate to put on a real nice graduation.”